Arts concert review

Afro-Latin jazz gains new fans

Arturo O’Farrill & Donald Harrison get the audience jamming alongside the orchestra

As part of the Celebrity Series of Boston, an initiative that brings famous performing artists to the Boston area, Arturo O’Farrill and Donald Harrison set the Berklee Performance stage aflame with flying fingers on the piano and alto sax, respectively. The pair and the Grammy winning Afro-Latin Jazz orchestra (founded by O’Farrill himself) had audiences shimmying in their seats during a performance that earned three standing ovations.

Arturo O’Farrill, son of famous Chico O’Farrill (a composer who worked alongside big names Tito Puentes and Celia Cruz), was born in Mexico to a Mexican-Cubano household. Donald Harrison, nicknamed “the Big Chief of Congo Square”, was raised in a musical New Orleans home. Growing up in different cultural backgrounds, these two men came together for a perfect blend of smooth and latin jazz.

Arturo kicked things off with a virtuosic solo piano that very suddenly became a full orchestra piece. With flying drumsticks and laughing nods, this was an exciting start to a high-energy performance. This untitled piece is a track from The Conversation Continued, O’Farrill’s upcoming album. Conceptually, the album is what Arturo imagined would have occurred if the “conversation continued” between American musician Dizzy Gillespie and Cuban musician Chano Pozo. Next, Arturo performed my favorite song of the night, “Mercado en Domingo” (“Market on a Sunday”). Arturo was able to capture the busyness of a Spanish market in a comedic manner — the trombone, sax, and trumpet trio sounded so loud and bold I could almost imagine three ladies arguing over a piece of fruit. The catchy and fast-moving rhythm made me nearly ashamed of our uneven clapping at the end.

On the other end of the latin smooth jazz spectrum, Donald’s highlight piece was a slow ballad called “Sincerely Yours”. It was sensual. It was smooth. But it was certainly not soft. His saxophone blew out notes that rang of passion, which came together as cascades of melodies. Some sections contained 32nd and 64th (and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone mentioned 128th) notes, without ever losing clarity. The syncopation was very typical of jazz and after it was done, I was surprised Donald wasn’t out of breath.

Undoubtedly, the highlight of the whole night was “On the Corner of Manecone and Bourbon.” Arturo prefaced the piece by sharing his background as an assistant professor at SUNY Purchase and his concern over the lack of latin jazz performers in the curriculum for jazz history. He launched into the piece after mysteriously asking the backstage crew for a pencil. It started in a haunting minor with a round of instrument solos “voicing their opinions”. The others soon joined, playing a happier tune, only to be quickly interrupted by Arturo. He stood up with his sheet music and scribbled all over it — literally rewriting the history of jazz. With a couple of consecutive chord progressions, he demonstrated how similar latin music and jazz are and how important latin jazz is to the history of jazz. It was a very theatrical piece that surprised the audience at first, but left them in laughter.

After the show, members of the audience praised Arturo, in both English and Spanish, for his performance that integrated theatrical elements with the music. I even overheard a group of middle-aged friends commenting about “getting the jazz band together again” and knew many people felt just as inspired as I was that night.